With J.D.s in Hand Alumni Pursue
In every cohort of new law students, there are some who are not sure they are destined to actually practice law. They may matriculate for a variety of reasons— parental pressure, indecision about what to do next, or even a reluctance to give up the student life. Often it is a vague sense that the law can only help whatever they eventually decide is their calling. Sometimes clarity comes after graduation, maybe even after practicing law for a while. A legal education, it turns out, is fine preparation for many other career paths. Far from regretting law school as a detour, those profiled here can recommend it as a launch point for just about any career. And for more than a few, their personal lives were forever changed.
Jeff Marx ’96 came to his current career as a composer and lyricist as an impostor. After working in entertainment law for a while, he wanted to land a few clients of his own. He figured only young, undiscovered talent, those who couldn’t afford more experienced lawyers, would be his natural client base, but where to find them? That’s when he enrolled in a music theater writers workshop. “I didn’t tell them I was just there to meet clients and had no designs on being a songwriter,” he confesses. To keep his place, however, he had to do the work. There he found a collaborator, Bobby Lopez, and together they started writing a show. “A couple of years later, the damn thing is on Broadway and wins a Tony Award, and so I never went back to law. I said, this is fun!”
The show, Avenue Q, is in its fifth year on Broadway, and is touring the world. It is also being made into a film.
As far afield as his work seems from the law, Marx is passionate about Cardozo, which he attended on an Earle Mack Scholarship after studying theater as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. “I never for a minute regretted going to law school, … and what it taught me has proved invaluable,” he testifies. Through his involvement in the Cardozo Law Revue, the annual student theatrical production, he became friends with Dean Frank Macchiarola (1991–1996), who gamely sang in the Revue each year, including Marx’s version, Law Miserables. It also provided the material he used when he auditioned for the workshop.
While Marx was raising funds to launch Avenue Q, Macchiarola came forward to invest some of his own money, even though nine out of ten shows lose money. “That was just the sweetest, most wonderful personal show of support,” says Marx.
Even after Marx got his entertainment start, his law background proved surprisingly helpful. “I never would have started writing something that was a knockoff of Sesame Street and The Muppets, including a portrayal of Gary Coleman, if I hadn’t known a little bit about copyright law,” he recalled. “My collaborator would say, ‘We can’t do that,’ and I’d think about it for a second and say, ‘Well, actually, yes we can.’ I honestly use my law background every day of the week.”
Among the most useful things Laura Sydell ’87, now NPR’s digital culture correspondent based in San Francisco, picked up at Cardozo was the ability to reason clearly, hone in on a subject, and ask tough questions. She sharpened those skills on three different New York City mayors earlier in her career, including Rudolph Giuliani, whom she interned with when he was still New York’s Attorney General.
The day Giuliani came to speak with the interns was the same day the Supreme Court issued its Hardwick decision [Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986)], upholding a Georgia sodomy statute, and Giuliani told Sydell he supported the decision. Several years later, Laura, now a reporter, again asked Giuliani, then a mayoral candidate, about his position on this politically sensitive issue. He was irked and dodged the question, and Laura soon found herself cornered in a very intimidating manner by his press secretary. “It was definitely a portent of how he was going to behave as Mayor towards the press,” she recalls. “There were more First Amendment suits against Giuliani than against any other mayor.”
While at law school, Sydell was realizing she was more interested in writing about legal issues than actually practicing. She got involved in the school newspaper, but it was Prof. Edward de Grazia, a noted First Amendment scholar whose research assistant she was, who really influenced her decision. “He suggested I check out radio; he said I had a great voice and presence; and he knew I was interested in writing. He deserves a lot of credit—he probably does not know this—for what I ended up doing.”
After volunteering at WBAI, Sydell did other radio stints at Fordham University, in Newark, and then at WNYC before she landed a job in early 2001 with NPR, based in San Francisco. All along the way, legal issues figured strongly in the mix of stories she covered even though that was never her beat per se. Assignment editors were confident that her legal background would help her get it right.
Nowadays, covering Silicon Valley, Sydell has “armies of intellectual property lawyers” among sources she taps to help explain the incessant struggles over software and other forms of content, including video games.
Sydell counts her experience in Prof. Lela Love’s mediation clinic as among the most useful, particularly when reporting on communities or situations where there are warring factions. “There are a lot of situations in life where certain of these tenets are useful, the most basic being to look for what the parties have in common as a place to begin. It was first-rate training.”
Becky Sendrow ’05 reckons maybe only five percent of people get to do exactly what they want, especially early in their careers, and so she feels particularly fortunate having landed a dream job as a budding agent with the William Morris Agency, the world’s largest talent agency. She started there two weeks after passing the bar. “It’s being creative; it’s doing something different every day. I am not shuffling paperwork; I talk with people in an area I have interest in—which is entertainment and sports,” says the former nationally competitive tennis player. She decided not to turn pro but wanted to stay connected to the entertainment/sports world. This led to thoughts of becoming an agent, and she knew that being a lawyer would make her a more effective agent.
After the requisite time in the mailroom, where all trainee agents start out, Sendrow joined the broadcast department, where she works with nonscripted on-camera talent, game and reality show hosts, chefs looking to brand themselves, athletes looking to reinvent themselves as hosts and commentators, and anchors and reporters looking to move up the TV market food chain.
Cardozo’s strengths in entertainment law made the school a natural choice; the communication and negotiating skills that Sendrow honed in Lela Love’s courses were particularly helpful. “As an agent with a law degree, I feel I have a leg up in a) understanding the language in the contract and b) looking out for the best interests of my clients. If someone is using my client’s name in a way they shouldn’t be or writing a defamatory article about my client, these are things I’ll always be on my toes for,” she says. Little wonder then that there are more lawyers than nonlawyers in her department.
The excitement of her job and other benefits like “watching more TV than any normal human being should,” guilt-free, help make up for an income level that is a fraction of what first-year law graduates can expect at a major firm. But for Sendrow there is no turning back, and she is especially passionate about helping new graduates use their legal education in whatever their perfect jobs might be. At Cardozo job panels, “I’m always bombarded because people are interested in someone who is pursuing a career in entertainment that is not a legal career.”
The law, always a close handmaiden of business and finance, especially in our litigious society, is a natural starting point for many careers that eventually veer into business itself. Some fully anticipate that transition; for others, it comes unexpectedly.
When the call came for a higher corporate position,’90, was not entirely ready to respond. He was quite content where he was at the time: assistant general counsel at SBC Communications (later taken over by AT&T), with 11 lawyers reporting to him on procurement, real estate, intellectual property, and information technology issues. “You will always be a lawyer,” coaxed the senior executive recruiting Huntley for a broader role. Even now, two promotions later—he is a senior vice president, overseeing 6,000 employees in 24 states—Huntley finds comfort knowing he has the option of going back to law at some point.
That seems unlikely in a career trajectory that continues to bring widening responsibilities, with legal matters just one of many. It’s a career incubated during long, robust discussions about the evolution of civil rights with Huntley’s father, who went to work as a chauffeur for a wealthy Texas oil family in 1935. “He had seen some ugliness in his time, as you can imagine. He was 87 when he passed away about 7 years ago—never bitter, just very much interested in the legal process and ensuring that justice was applied equally to everyone,” he recalls.
When he graduated from college in 1980, Huntley took a job in government relations at the Dallas office of Warner Cable Corporation. There he met the New York firm’s general counsel at the time, Richard M. Berman (now a judge in the US District Court for the Southern District), who became something of a mentor, encouraging Huntley to think about law school. With a fiancé already working in New York—a Wilhelmina model with an engineering degree—Cardozo seemed an eminently sensible move.
“I always felt that economic empowerment was the next phase of the civil rights movement and having a law degree would be key and very pivotal in that phase,” notes Huntley, who, while raising two teenage sons, continues to be active in civic groups, including serving on the executive committees of the United Way of the Texas Gulf Coast, and the Greater Houston Partnership, and as a board member of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau. He also served on the 2004 Houston Super Bowl Host Committee, and remains an active member of the Texas Bar Foundation.
“Cardozo taught me how to think, no question about it, to think critically and analytically. In so many different ways, the experience was just invaluable,” Huntley says. Besides lively discussions with fellow students about Israel and Palestine, there was the occasional newsmaker who spoke at the School, including Robert Bork, soon after he lost his confirmation battle for the Supreme Court. “Law school was probably the most intellectually stimulating experience of my life,” he adds.
Jeff Fishman ’92 also knew he was more interested in business than practicing law, but when he researched executives he admired, he discovered many of them held J.D. degrees. That encouraged him to go to law school, where he gained the knowledge to establish his own Los Angeles-based wealth management firm, JSF Financial, LLC, launched nearly 15 years ago. For him it was a far better fit, temperamentally, than the law. “I wanted to stay away from the acrimony and contention that you often find in litigation or in the practice,” he explains. He tried general civil litigation for a year but found he derived much more pleasure and joy from being able to work together with people in meeting their financial and personal goals.
Choosing Cardozo was easy. Numerous family members have been alumni and/or friends of Yeshiva University. His grandfather was president of Friends of Yeshiva University on the West Coast for years, and Fishman was the product of Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles, as well as an ’89 graduate of Yeshiva College. “I always said someday they are going to put me in the magazine because I was the poster boy,” he quips, adding, “I thought the education, knowledge, and relationships that I would gain from law school would be invaluable to whatever I pursued, and that has been the case.” It also turns out to be an understatement. His best friend is fellow alumnus Joseph Tuchman ’92, who practices real estate law in New York. His wife, Shari (née Dattelkramer), graduated in ’92 also and became a tax attorney, spending 11 years at Arthur Andersen and later at WTAS, an independent tax consultancy, before recently taking a sabbatical to better care for their three young kids.
Classes that stand out in his memory continue to be relevant to his current work. Fishman praises Prof. Edward Zelinsky’s tax classes: “He compelled us to think analytically and argue both sides of any case law or legislation in the world of tax, and that had a profound impact on me.” William Schwartz’s lessons on estate planning “help me significantly on a daily basis.” He also benefited from James Lewis’s tax clinic, which helped indigent clients deal with the IRS. It was “very enlightening representing people who needed advice in resolving disputes with a regulatory agency,” he said.
Perhaps the particular skill Fishman prizes most from Cardozo is being able to “spot issues in a diffuse fact pattern.” He explains, “In my company we deal with high networth people with complex financial and personal lives, and the key for me in the initial meeting is to be able to identify different issues or planning opportunities that need to be addressed or contemplated,” demonstrating to the prospective client that he has that kind of foresight.
Fishman’s firm continues to benefit in other ways from having attended Cardozo. He often consults his tax attorney wife. “I’ll seek her guidance and advice because she is one of the best people I know in the industry and she doesn’t bill by the hour for discussion,” he says.
People drawn to work in nonprofits often develop a passion for an area of public interest they had not considered previously or that they are drawn to serendipitously. That animating spirit often yields careers devoted to causes aimed at changing the status quo, sometimes with outsized impacts, or to public institutions. Think Randi Weingarten ’83, president of the United Federation of Teachers, or Ellen Cherrick ’80, who served for many years at Cardozo as both associate dean of career services and director of admissions, and now brings a comparable devotion to her post as the administrator of the NYU School of Medicine cardiothoracic surgery department, where she has been since 1999. A legal background, it turns out, is useful for either aim. “To have a legal background is enormously helpful because so many facets of my job have some legal components to it—everything from contractual agreements with the doctors, a lot of health care compliance issues for the State of New York, immigration matters with the fellows, residents, and research scientists,” says Cherrick.
For Janice Schacter ’90, law school was the means by which she would be able to change the world. She thought that would involve consumer advocacy, which she worked on for a summer in the New York Attorney General’s office. But she found her real mission closer to home when her 13- year-old daughter, Arielle, was diagnosed with hearing loss at the age of two and a half. This compromised her daughter’s pleasure on outings, to Disney World, for example, and even at highly visual events such as circuses. “Our life became so isolated, and I said this is ridiculous; we should move to the suburbs if we are not going to enjoy the culture of New York City, which was a big part of our life,” she recalled. When she investigated services and programs for her daughter, she found that none of the major hearing-loss organizations focused on culture, which prompted her to establish Hearing Access Program. “I thought if I am going to be working for free, which I have been for six years, it was going to be based on what my daughter needed, so the program has evolved from there.”
Museums and national parks are a focus of Schacter’s work, but so is better hearing access on mass transit and in the city’s taxis. Her persistence is paying off. By the end of the year, for instance, 60 NYC subway stations will have induction loop systems, which function like wi-fi for laptops, providing direct in-the-ear amplification, to make it easier to understand MTA clerks behind the thick glass booths. (This is a first in the United States; the United Kingdom began installing this system in 1998.) The relatively simple technology should be made available everywhere, she argues, and installed as part of home TV sets.
Schacter’s mission seems one that is bound to get more attention. More than 30 million Americans—including roughly a third of those over 65—are thought to suffer some form of hearing loss. “Disability rights are really human rights and civil rights—it’s easy to discriminate against people with disabilities because they are not always in a position to defend themselves or to effectively communicate what they need,” says Schacter. “I always say, you don’t ask the questions if you can’t hear the answer.”
So Schacter is asking a lot of questions. “Using what I learned in law school and having a law degree has made a huge difference. I was taken much more seriously from the beginning. I wasn’t just a mom, I’m also an attorney.” Her advocacy starts with persuasion, raising awareness of exclusion when institutions do not provide for the “effective communication” standard provided for in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. And while those efforts proceed, Schacter keeps a detailed record to form the basis for more formal complaints if needed. For instance, she submitted a 17-page phone log—complete with names of those with whom she spoke and what followed or didn’t—to the Department of the Interior to help get Ellis Island “corrected.”
“I’d like to make the ADA the mandate it was intended to be; that’s my goal and that’s where my law degree has been helping me,” Schacter said. She hopes to create a foundation in the coming years to sustain her pro bono work. “I have gotten more out of my work than I have ever given. I love what I do and how it has affected my daughter. She will be able to reach her dreams.”